Breaking the Impasse: Direct Talks between Army Chiefs

Introduction

India and Pakistan exemplify the changed character of warfare in the 21st century. They once fought conventional wars. Now they shadowbox under a nuclear overhang. As technological leaps spur new revolutions in military affairs, violent non-state groups form alliances that challenge state monopolies on the use of force. Professional militaries face unprecedented challenges as complex and rapidly changing political, security, and environmental circumstances not only defy the traditional role of the militaries, but also demand quicker resolution of conflicts.

Twenty years since the 1998 nuclear tests, India and Pakistan continue to wrestle with stability challenges while both modernize their conventional and strategic forces and engage in an arms competition that is burdensome on respective national resources. 1 Both militaries are engaged in operations internally, suffer bloodshed, and induce wear and tear on weapons and equipment. Each perceives mischief by the other behind their mutual woes. Cross-border/Line of Control (LoC) violence has significantly increased as each side inflicts senseless agony on the other, resulting in terrible deaths and injuries to soldiers and civilians alike. While neither side blinks, the Kashmiri citizens tragically suffer– relentlessly, exceeding 70 years – with no end to their misfortune.

Commemorating 70 years of independence, leaders in India and Pakistan vowed not to repeat mistakes of the past and promised to look into the future for better, stable lives for future generations. 2 Encouraging rhetoric from the leadership of both countries brings ephemeral hopes, but dissipates quickly to the usual “blame game.” Generations since partition have seen this cyclical pattern all too often. Meanwhile, the region remains a crisis away from blundering into an accidental war that could escalate and cross into the nuclear domain.

It is time for India and Pakistan to try a new approach. This essay proposes that the Indian and Pakistani governments upgrade their military-to-military interaction to the highest level – a dedicated channel of conversation between army chiefs. One purpose of this channel would be to craft a new process for sustained military-to-military dialogue and institute a process of negotiating military confidence-building measures (CBMs) and nuclear risk-reduction measures. While military leaders meet and discuss professional matters, the political and civilian institutions would maintain their oversight, control, and final decisions on the direction of bilateral relations.

The Proposal

I propose that the Indian and Pakistani army chiefs as well as the respective national security advisors (NSAs) meet periodically at a mutually agreeable, neutral location to discuss professional matters and security issues that affect the militaries of both countries. The first meeting would break the ice, focusing on general professional matters in areas requiring immediate remedial steps to alleviate mutual concerns and to reduce tensions.

The two chiefs could then constitute a standing Military Working Group (MWG) headed by three-star generals (senior corps commanders). The MWG should be mandated to meet twice a year and submit reports to the respective army chiefs, who would review and report through government channels to their respective prime ministers. 3  The agenda for MWG meetings might include, but not necessarily be limited to: reviewing the efficacy of current agreements and existing military-to-military CBMs between the two countries, identifying additional measures to backstop and implement them, and crafting new CBMs relevant to the changing technological evolutions and military circumstances. These meetings could be held annually, rotating each year in India and Pakistan. The proposed MWG would not replace the existing hotline between directors general of military operations (DGMOs) and other existing channels of communications.

The two militaries are often blamed for lack of progress in finalizing military CBMs and agreements such as a mutual withdrawal from the Siachen Glacier and delineation of the Sir Creek boundary. Rather than casting the militaries in the role of spoilers, I propose that they be given the responsibility to achieve positive results. They can do no worse in front of the scenes than behind the scenes, and they might do much better. In this way, instead of dealing with inferences, the apportionment of blame or credit for accomplishment would fall directly on military leaders.

The Rationale

There are several reasons for this proposal. First, the modalities of current military-to-military communication need reform and change. The most high-ranking structured communication between the two militaries at present is their DGMO hotlines, which are necessary but insufficient to break major impasses, and which do not generate new initiatives. 4  Second, composite dialogues in the past have failed to create a viable process resulting in new CBMs and nuclear risk-reduction measures. Both states blame the other’s militaries for the impasse.5 Finally, the changed character of war and emergence of new factors – including climate and environmental changes – contribute to instability and will affect both militaries alike. It is in the security interest of both countries that their military leaderships remain constructively engaged.

Finally, the changed character of war and emergence of new factors – including climate and environmental changes – contribute to instability and will affect both militaries alike. It is in the security interest of both countries that their military leaderships remain constructively engaged.

Insufficient Communication Structure

Since their independence, Indian and Pakistani military leaders have never met directly while in office.6  Once a unified British Indian military that was split in 1947, the two militaries have fought major wars, engaged in military crises, and remained in a continuous standoff along the LoC in the disputed Kashmir region. India-Pakistan military deployment is the longest perpetual military deployment in contemporary history, predating the 38th parallel on the Korean Peninsula and the Golan Heights in the Middle East. 7 The LoC in Kashmir is active and violent with frequent cross-border firing, raids, and infiltration.

Further, India and Pakistan do not have any risk reduction or communication system that can prevent miscalculation or misperceptions. Over time, India and Pakistan have agreed on several nuclear and military CBMs, but are unable to develop a viable mechanism for their extension and meaningful implementation. I argue that with the shifting political-security landscape and technological innovations, India and Pakistan should now move “beyond atmospheric CBMs.” As Michael Krepon has observed, “the connective tissue between atmospheric CBMs and military-and-nuclear related measures is weak.”8 Meetings of the two army chiefs would shake the inertia, give professional stature to the process, and provide the “adhesiveness” to the tissue, which is long due in South Asia. 9 

Failure of the Composite Dialogues

The second reason for suggesting this new approach is that past attempts at “comprehensive” or “composite” dialogues have yielded insufficient results and failed to establish a sustainable consultative body for peace and security.10 Since the spring of 1997 both countries have attempted “composite” dialogue comprising eight baskets of issues, but these dialogues fell victim to mutual acrimony between the two countries. One basket of the eight – namely, “peace, security, and confidence-building measures” – convened more vigorously than others, especially after the 1998 nuclear tests. Under the pressure of international sanctions following the nuclear tests, major powers encouraged bilateral dialogue between the two new nuclear-armed countries. The international community is still convinced that structured peace and stability in South Asia is critical to international security.

Highly bureaucratized bilateral dialogues led by respective foreign secretaries progressed, typically, at a slow pace. An alternative to military-to-military dialogue is summitry. The perils of summitry were, however, on display when Indian Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif decided to meet dramatically in Lahore. This summit resulted in the famous Lahore Agreement in February 1999. The “peace, security, and CBMs” basket of the composite dialogue produced the Lahore Memorandum of Understanding, which to date remains the master document committing both countries to “engage in bilateral consultations on security concepts and nuclear doctrines, with a view to developing measures for confidence building in the nuclear and conventional fields, aimed at avoidance of conflict.”

The Lahore Agreement pledged to create further working groups to explore ideas and to proceed with a process of continuous engagements on national security issues, but the Kargil Crisis immediately after derailed prospects of any substantive process. If summitry between the prime ministers is too risky – arguably because the militaries are not on board – then a high-level military-to-military channel may well be a better bet for a sustainable success at the summit level.

The Lahore framework, however, leaves open the possibility for the two countries to restart the process. The last conventional military CBMs agreement was in 1991, for advance notifications on military exercises and air space violations. Since the Lahore Agreement, only two agreements – the 2005 ballistic missile flight-test notification and the 2006 nuclear accident notification – have been signed. No other progress has been made. In 2003, a LoC cease-fire agreement was initiated – notably at the initiative of the Pakistan army chief and president – but it gradually lost adherence when unaccompanied by a serious process to improve relations, and subsequently became a dead letter after the Uri and Pathankot attacks in 2016. 11 A cease-fire has been revisited in 2018 with the support of both militaries.12 

The NSA channel is occasionally employed to seek improvement in bilateral ties, but to little or no avail. The two DGMOs continue their scheduled weekly communication. These interactions are important, but at best remain “atmospheric.” During 2004 and 2008, there was intense back-door diplomacy that included discussion on Kashmir, Siachen, and Sir Creek. Reportedly, both sides reached some form of agreements and commitments from the highest political leadership. Yet, for a variety of reasons, India and Pakistan were unable to finalize these agreements. Hopes were dashed in November 2008 after the Mumbai terror attacks. A decade of tense relations followed.

Observers have often attributed failure to reach consensus on interagency disagreements within each country – primarily pointing fingers at the military and intelligence establishments of the other. Indian analysts assert that the Pakistan military is against improving ties with India by objecting, for example, to the granting of most-favored-nation status that normalizes trade to meet the terms of World Trade Organization conditions.13 Conversely, Pakistani analysts assert that the Indian military objects to agreements on “low-hanging fruit,” such as an agreement to withdraw from the Siachen Glacier. In the summer of 2012, for example, following a tragic avalanche that buried nearly an entire Pakistani infantry battalion, Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani called for the demilitarization of the Siachen Glacier.14 Negotiations followed at the bureaucratic level that had reportedly reached agreement, but the Indian army chief publicly opposed any withdrawal of Indian troops and dashed prospects of settlement.15 

Changed Character of War

There is a third compelling reason for the two militaries to have structured professional exchanges. Violent organized groups function autonomously using technologies that were primarily the exclusive domain of regular militaries, changing the character of war and domestic violence. Military forces have been drawn into prolonged asymmetric warfare. Information warfare, cyberattacks, and freewheeling social media shield attribution and manipulate military operations. These shifts increase the chances of the sudden and unanticipated eruption of military crises that neither military can control. Improved military-to-military communication could address these challenges.

In research and Track II workshops that this author organized with the aim of exploring the impact of emerging technologies on deterrence stability, one conclusion reached was that the changed character of wars and new instruments that have been added to the mix of expanding arsenals are blurring deterrence thresholds. Induction of cyber war, space capabilities, autonomous weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles, and dual-use, long-range precision strike systems are just a few examples where new instruments of warfare complicate the already complex strategic terrain.

Mistrust, contested military doctrines, and inadequacy of communication add to the prospects of misperceptions, accidents, and inadvertent escalation. CBMs negotiated more than two decades ago are no longer sufficient. The region now needs to build upon old CBMs and seek new ideas to match the requirements of the current times. The erstwhile Pakistani offer of a strategic-restraint-regime arrangement may also need reexamination in light of the significantly changed strategic and technical environment.

Environmental change compounds national-security challenges. Climate change affects mountains, rivers, and seas. The Siachen Glacier and Sir Creek are under stress and changing far more rapidly than is generally recognized. With global warming melting the glacier, the perpetual deployment for over three decades of India and Pakistani soldiers at the roof of the world needs to be rethought. Military deployments not only contribute to the pollution of the environment; they are victims of the hazards of climate change, just as the Pakistan Army battalion perished under the avalanche in Siachen Glacier in 2012. Recent studies point to compelling reasons why attention must be paid to the resolution of Sir Creek dispute. There are dead zones (i.e., an absence of oxygen) in the vicinity of the Gulf of Oman that, in combination with pollution into the sea from inland rivers, are affecting sustainable marine life in the region. Further, the rise of sea level due to climate change is affecting the Sir Creek tidal channel and complicating the delineation of maritime boundaries. Sir Creek merits a speedy resolution and deserves to be declared an environmentally protected area.16 

Challenges

One major challenge to this proposal is that it is too radical – perhaps provocative. Both countries have political leaders operating under a system of democracy. They have foreign ministries, diplomats, and functioning state bureaucracies that are capable of executing state-to-state relations. In India, political leaders prize civilian control over the military. This proposal would result in raising the stature of the Indian army chief, to the chagrin of the Indian civil bureaucracy. In Pakistan, where the history of civil-military relations is much different, this proposal will be criticized for yielding even more civilian control to the military. The gravitas of the Pakistan army chief in the national polity is so profound that it overshadows civilian achievements. For many, the optics of having the military in the lead is just not right even if the rationale is understood. Others might simply reject this proposal because change is always hard to accept.

Overcoming Challenges

The primary reason why it is nonetheless important to overcome these challenges is because security concerns and destabilizing factors are growing between Pakistan and India. Diplomats have been hamstrung in dealing with these issues, bureaucrats proceed at a snail’s pace and are risk-averse, and meetings between prime ministers are rare. The one channel that could be most helpful has been least utilized. It is time to consider high-level military-to-military talks to break logjams.

It is also time to test the assumption that the two militaries are opposed to the normalization of India-Pakistan relations by challenging them to take responsibility to negotiate military-related CBMs. There would, necessarily, be civilian oversight. Indeed, the onus of bringing an end to enduring conflict would rest on the political and civilian leadership. High-level, sustained military engagement can help. This process can, at a minimum, grasp the low-hanging fruit of settling the Siachen Glacier and Sir Creek issues. Old military-related CBMs could be updated and new military-related CBMs could be advanced. Military perspective for conflict resolution could be exchanged. Cease-fires could be reaffirmed. First steps toward the resolution of more intractable issues could be taken.

There are several signals emanating from Pakistan that reflect a clear desire to reach out. The Pakistan army invited India’s defense attaché to attend the Pakistan Day military parade in March 2018. India and Pakistani military contingents are expected to participate in a joint military exercise under the aegis of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is unprecedented. Indian and Pakistani troops participate in United Nations peacekeeping missions. Pakistani and Indian military officers attend professional courses abroad. While they maintain their respective professional national positions, they and their families develop bonds and friendships that transcend the acrimony of politics at home. 17 

Because both countries are democracies, are nuclear-armed states, and possess experienced bureaucracies, bright civil societies, and vibrant media, India and Pakistan should be all the more confident to challenge their professional militaries to stimulate ideas and help improve bilateral ties. Seeking solutions inside the box has failed. It is time to try outside-the-box solutions.

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a new Stimson Center book, Off Ramps from Confrontation in Southern Asia, and has been republished with permission. The book features pragmatic, novel approaches from rising talent and veteran analysts to reduce tensions resulting out of nuclear competition among India, Pakistan, and China. The full book is available for download here.

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Image 1: US Army via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP via Getty Images

  1. The Pakistani budget that was announced in April 2018 projected at least 1 trillion rupees in defense expenditure. See Baqir Sajjad Syed, “Budget 2018-19: RS1.1 Trillion Proposed for Defence,” Dawn, April 28, 2018.
  2. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated his resolve to defend the country and regarding the persistent Kashmir uprising, stating that it “cannot be resolved by either bullet or abuse but only by embracing all Kashmiris.” (See “Bullets or Abuses Will Not Help Resolve Kashmir Issue, Says Narendra Modi,” The Hindu, August 15, 2017.) Across the border in Pakistan, on August 14, 2017, Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa hoisted a 400-foot flag at the India-Pakistan border at Wagah and stated “the height at which this national flag flutters bears testimony to Pakistan’s promising future.” (See “COAS Hoists Pakistan’s Largest Flag at Wagah Border on Eve of Independence Day,” Dawn, August 14, 2017.)
  3. Other members of the MWG may include directors general of military operations, directors general of military intelligence, commanders of the Border Security Forces and Rangers, and the joint secretary from the Ministry of Defense. The MWG may subsequently include directors from air and naval operations and officials from Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division and India’s Integrated Defense Staff as the work progresses. The scope of the MWG would expand or reduce depending on the success or otherwise of the initial deliberations.
  4. The DGMO hotlines remain the primary means of military communication between the two militaries. Every Tuesday, the two DGMOs speak at a specified time on routine military matters and to clarify any questions. This is an important CBM. See Rajat Pandit, “India, Pakistan DGMOs Hold Talks on Ceasefire Violation and Terrorism,” Times of India, May 30, 2018. There are other forums such as meetings between director-generals of the rangers (Pakistan) and border security forces (India) and between maritime security agencies, which are important, but operational matters remain with the DGMOs, who report to the respective chains of command. See “BSF Raises Concerns with Pak Rangers in Sector Commander Meeting,” The Hindu, November 11, 2017; and “Pakistan Maritime Security Agency High Level Delegation Led by Rear Admiral Arrives in New Delhi,” Times of Islamabad, May 28, 2018.
  5. The most detailed and promising peace and security agreement between India and Pakistan is the Lahore Agreement of 1999, which has a memorandum of understanding. There has been negligible progress on the Lahore Agreement.
  6. The only exception has been when the Pakistani army chief is also the president of Pakistan, and thus interacts as head of state with India’s political leadership. 
  7. Pranab Dhal Samanta, “The Indian Army Also Has Its Own Kashmir Story to Tell,” The Economic Times, May 15, 2017.
  8. Michael Krepon, “Moving Beyond Atmospheric CBMs,” Dawn, August 20, 2012.
  9. Ibid.
  10. For a comprehensive list of CBMs between India and Pakistan, see Michael Krepon, “South Asia Confidence-Building Measures (CBM) Timeline,” Stimson CenterApril 14, 2017, https://www.stimson.org/content/south-asia-confidence-building-measures-cbm-timeline.
  11. “India, Pakistan Clash on Kashmir Border Ends Brief Truce,” Straits Times, June 3, 2018.
  12. “India and Pakistan Agree to Truce on Kashmir Border,” New York Times, May 30, 2018.
  13. T. V. Paul, The Warrior State: Pakistan and the Contemporary World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). See also Gurmeet Kanwal, “An Open Letter to Pakistan’s Chief of Army’s Staff,” Indian Defense Review, April 2, 2016, http://www.indiandefencereview.com/an-open-letter-to-pakistans-chief-of-army-staff. For Pakistani scholars echoing Indian allegation, see S. Akbar Zaidi, “The Problem of Making Peace,” The Hindu, April 22, 2016.
  14. Anita Joshua, “It Is Time to Resolve Siachen, Says Kayani,” The Hindu, April 19, 2012.
  15. Gaurav C. Sawant and Shiv Aroor, “Blood Politics on Siachin,” India Today, May 5, 2012. See also “India and Pakistan hold Siachin Glacier Talks,” BBC News, June 11, 2012.
  16. Vijay Sukheja, “Neemrana Dialogue: Exploring Ecology-Environment Matrix for Sir Creek Resolution,” South Asia Defence and Strategic Review 12, no. 2 (May-June 2018): 45, http://www.defstrat.com/neemrana-dialogue-exploring-ecology-environment-matrix-sir-creek-resolution.
  17. Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa and former Indian Army Chief General Bipin Singh served together in a U.N. peacekeeping mission in 2007-2008. Both have tremendous professional respect for each other to date. See “Ex-Indian Army Chief Praises Gen. Qamar Jawad Bajwa,” The Tribune, November 27, 2016.
Posted in , Civil-Military Relations, Conventional Forces, Cooperation, Crisis, Defence, democracy, Deterrence, Escalation Control, India-Pakistan Relations, Military, Nuclear Security, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Politics

Feroz Hassan Khan

Feroz Hassan Khan

Feroz Hassan Khan is a research professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He is a former director of arms control and disarmament affairs in the Strategic Plans Division, Joint Services Headquarters, in Pakistan. He represented Pakistan in several multilateral and bilateral arms control negotiations and served on numerous assignments in the United States, Europe, and Asia. He has widely participated in international and national conferences on strategic and nonproliferation issues, international security, terrorism, and nuclear arms control. He is the author of Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb. He holds a master’s in international relations from the School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

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